Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sunday Best: Top 25 Television Comedies of All time

What makes a good comedy?

I can tell you that this is not easy to answer.  I've made a number of low-budget films, both comedies and dramas.  And I can tell you that the comedies are much more difficult.

There is a subjective nature to comedy that makes it a little less universal than tragedy.  I can recognize the humor in someone like a Tina Fey, but she just doesn't make me laugh.  I know others who feel the same way about those I find hilarious like Monty Python.

So how do you come up with criteria for something this diverse and difficult to pin down.  Well, when composing my list of the top 25 television comedies, here are a few ground rules.

1.  Greatness is determined mostly by timelessness.
There are some comedies that are very funny in their time and place, but they do not age well.  This is especially true of comedies that try to capture the zeitgeist of an age or try to hard to be trendy and topical.  South Park has some hilarious moments and episodes, but you can feel its age very quickly.  30 years from now, I'm not sure how much people will enjoy their humor.  I Love Lucy on the other hand, can be enjoyed generation after generation.

If the humor can withstand the test of time, it indicates that it has touched on something universal and great.

2.  Series length is not a determination of greatness.
There are some shows that are very popular and run for year, but are not very good (I'm looking at you, Two and a Half Men).  But there are some that are great but are not appreciated enough in their time (Arrested Development).  There are even some great series that last only a season.  So the number of episodes will not be a determining factor (though it may be brought up).

3.  Drama does not make the show a great comedy.
The mixture of drama into comedy can be incredibly powerful.  Juxtaposing laughter with tears can be an incredibly cathartic experience.  But some think that by adding dramatic elements, having that "very special episode," makes the show better in and of itself.  I don't think that Diff'rent Strokes became a better show because of what happened to Dudley in the bike shop.  The addition of dramatic elements can help make a comedy better only if it gives you a strong emotional investment in the characters and thus you are able to laugh with them more.

4.  Sketch and variety shows do not apply.
One of the funniest shows I have ever seen in my life is Mystery Science Theater 3000.  But the type of skill necessary for righting good zingers and constructing a funny narrative are two different animals.  So as funny as shows like Saturday Night Live or The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, they are not on this list.

5.  "Shark Jumping" does not make a show bad.
Unlike the tight narrative of a film feature, most TV shows are filled with dozens of hours of content.  The course of years can dull the sharp edge of wit.  This is a common phenomenon.  But for the purposes of this list, we will focus on when the show was working at its best and not how it limped past its prime.  This does not mean that bad episodes do not have an effect.  It is possible that a series can diverge so badly that it ruins all that has come before.  But unless that is the case, we will accept that some shows will eventually recede in quality.

6.  Repeatability is key.
Some jokes are funny once and then never again.  This is particularly true of shock humor, which loses all of its hilarity once the outrageousness is gone.  But a great joke is one that you can tell repeatedly and it still tickles you.  The same is true of a good comedy.  A truly and deeply funny show is one that you can revisit and enjoy again and even find new angles of humor.

7.  The list is based on current television.
I am taking each series as it is now.  It is much easier to make a determination of a series after their run is complete.  But some of the series on this list are very new and are only getting started.  I will take them as they are now.  They may, in the end, turn out to be terrible.  But I can only work with what I have seen.

Tune in next week for the list to begin.


  1. No matter what you list, no matter how great the shows, there will always be something you leave out. That is a fact.

    1. Agreed. But debating the list is part of the fun!